May 21, 2021

Dear HUC Community,

Over the last few weeks, we have witnessed the clouds of the pandemic start to slowly recede, new clouds of war emerge, and a cease-fire declared.

The past eleven days’ exchange of military fire, initiated by Hamas’s brutal and indiscriminate rocket attacks on civilian populations, has seen innocent civilians scrambling for shelter, lives ended and disfigured, and the demolition both of property and of a sense of basic security.  Lethal violence and incitement have scarred Jewish-Arab relations within Israel’s mixed cities.  Our hearts break as we watch yet another round of death giving birth to a new generation of hate. 

This is yet another moment when despair can understandably overtake hope.  The work of Hebrew Union College to build a more just society in Israel has never been more important.  Our commitment to Israel and its future is an abiding pillar of our institution’s mission.

For almost 75 years, HUC-JIR has operated educational programs in Israel. In 1970 we created the distinctive Year-In-Israel program to build a strong connection between the North American Jewish community’s future leaders, the Jewish People, and the State of Israel in all of its diversity. 

We currently operate a separate Israeli Rabbinical Program, a joint academic program with Hebrew University, and a broad range of programs on our Taube Family campus in Jerusalem designed to strengthen civil society, including Teachers’ Lounge and Healing Hatred, innovative programs that build bridges between, Muslims, Christians and Jews, and Israelis of all backgrounds.

We are proud of the work of our faculty and staff as well as our Israeli rabbinical and education alumni throughout the State of Israel to counteract the pernicious effects of political opportunism, racism, and xenophobia now fueling this conflict. Our Israeli alumni are providing significant support for their communities under attack, while advancing religious pluralism and interfaith relations and working for peace in all sectors of society to strengthen the Jewish State. 

And yet right now, even with a cease-fire announced, these ideals can seem impossibly distant as our community is suffering. As Rabbi Talia Avnon, the Director of our Israeli Rabbinical Program, shared with me recently:   

I’m writing to you from our bomb shelter, my kids are here with me as we adjust together to our new scary life. The streets are washed with violence, fire, and stones and the sound from the rockets in the sky is worse than any storm. I wonder where all the efforts of good that we try so hard to build, disappear. We constantly send messages of hope and support to our students and teachers, and we pray for better days for Israel and all nations.

As we head into Shabbat, we stand in solidarity with Rabbi Avnon and with our extended HUC family in Israel right now—Jews and Palestinians who are part of our community—as they suffer through this terrible period. A statement (see below) issued jointly by the College and the Milah Hebrew Instruction Program on our campus, which caters to a large Palestinian constituency, underlines our firm commitment to a shared future underpinned by solidarity and by hope.

Our community includes a broad range of passionately-held opinions relating to these current hostilities and to their underlying causes. We are enriched by this range, even if some of us are enervated or enraged by some of the particular opinions. I don’t want to adjudicate between these views, or to restrict the kind of debate that is the lifeblood of engaged leadership. But I do wish to articulate our institution’s core commitments as I understand them.

We stand with Israel. It is the Israel committed to the defense and flourishing of the Jewish People and culture, secured by a government committed to promoting justice, equality, and human rights of all over whom it exercises its power.

We stand with Israel, which means affirming the right of its citizens to live in peace and security, and reminding its government of the need to promote conditions conducive to this end.

We stand with Israel, which means engaging with its complex reality rather than settling for a simple caricature, either angelic or demonic.

We stand with Israel, which means finding ways of expressing support and empathy even when we find particular policies or legislative initiatives impossible to stand.

We stand with Israel, which means seeking to provide a bridge linking Israel to North America, even when the rift between these two great centers of Jewish life threatens to widen.

We stand with Israel, which means acting as involved participants and not disengaged critics.

We look with hope to the prospect of stemming the human suffering. At this moment, let us all pray for an enduring and just peace for Jews and Palestinians, Israel and its neighbors.  May a sukkat shalom, a shelter of peace, speedily descend upon the entire region.

Shabbat shalom,

Andrew Rehfeld, Ph.D.


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